Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

Wise men from the East . . . of Lewis?

My father was Santa Claus. I didn’t realise this until, one evening when I was about eight years old, he and my mother went out one evening ‘to visit friends’. Less than an hour later, I answered the door to a tall, portly gentleman, dressed in a red robe, and with a flowing white beard. His laughing green eyes gave it away – this was not Father Christmas, but mine. The costume was property of the County Hospital, where he worked and by virtue of being the only man on the staff, the festive duty fell to him each year: dispensing talc and soap to the cailleachs and aftershave to the bodachs.

And then, years after, my future husband was Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve 2002, he donned the red suit and stood in front of his mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She recognised him immediately, however. I don’t know how, but I suspect that it was the same thing again – the eyes. He had kind, brown eyes and an expression of mischief unique to himself when he was in the process of one of his beloved ‘wind-ups’.

Later on that same evening, he asked me to marry him. We had met at Christmas two years previously and the timing of our engagement was somehow appropriate. He had not wanted to choose a ring himself, so gave me a locket in the meantime – a tradition of giving a small item of jewellery which he kept up every Christmas Eve thereafter.

Having had the great privilege of knowing and loving two Santas, I am well-placed to write a critique of the jolly cove. His image is everywhere at this time of year and children are giddy with the excitement of meeting him, prior even to his magical visit on the twenty-fourth. He has become the great focus of Christmas, the kindly, all-good fulfiller of wishes. If you ask Santa for something, then he will not refuse, because he is good.

I can remember what it felt like to believe in this mythical figure. It was lovely and it was magical, and there is certainly a place for that in the life of every child. But he was not always the ubiquitous figure that he has become, and I think that he has changed into something much more sinister than many of us realise.

It isn’t that once a year we positively encourage a complete stranger to enter our homes during the night, help himself to our food, before leaving without being seen. Surprisingly enough, that still seems to be an acceptable part of the Christmas narrative.

No, it’s more that he has displaced the person who really gives Christmas its meaning. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild is all very well, but he doesn’t give presents, or grant wishes. He is just a nice wee adjunct to the main event, which is a frenzy of greed. Far from being the benevolent bodach of my childhood, Santa is now some sort of god of consumerism, granting wishes and handing over whatever goods your little ones may desire. How can Jesus hope to compare with that?

His birth was most unlike that of lesser kings. It had none of the costly trappings of rank or display because from the very first, He was gently telling us that none of that matters. If it was of any real consequence, His would have been the richest of surroundings.

Yet, when the wise men came from the East, they brought expensive gifts. Tradition assumes that there were three wise men because three gifts are mentioned, but I cannot agree with that assessment. I find it unlikely that there were more gifts than men, but have absolutely no trouble in believing that the number of men exceeded the number of gifts: there were bound to be two or three who simply ‘forgot’, or ‘didn’t know what to buy’. At least, that’s how it would be if they were from the East of Lewis. Then again, wise men from Broadbay . . ?

Why, though, would a child born in such lowly circumstances require such costly and seemingly impractical gifts? They may have been mere men, but they were wise, after all, and their gifts were a recognition of who this child was.

Gold was for His kingship; frankincense for His deity; and myrrh, commonly used as an embalming oil, recognised His mortality as one who was God, yet fully human. These gifts, which have become the background noise of ‘the Christmas story’ are actually a very significant part of it because they foreshadowed what this infant would be to mankind.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow, which was a boiling frenzy of consumerism. People rushed about, beguiled by adverts promising the perfect Christmas day, with the cosiest pyjamas, the most fragrant perfume, and the bubbliest champagne.

But it is not the presents we will open next Monday, brought by the jolly man in the red suit which make Christmas perfect, however. That perfection was attained two thousand years ago, and began when a little child was offered gifts representing what He already possessed: deity, kingship, and the keys to death.

Those gifts already in His possession are now offered to us to share. We may benefit from His kingship and from His Godness, and we may accept His offer of freedom from the bonds of death. There will never be anything on Santa Claus’s sleigh to compare with that.